PAX East Part 2: There’s More At The Door [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the third in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which was life-altering in a good way. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly and the links ever so much more.]
After some suite chat, 2:00 rolled around, which was the time PAX was officially supposed to open. So a large contingent, myself included, headed con-wards. My first and most lasting impression of PAX is: PEOPLE. People, people, and also, more people. Behind them are other people, who block your view of the people already inside, and if you turn around, you can see a long line of people, stretching back farther than you can see. I feel like if I’d missed my plane, I could probably have walked a couple of blocks from my house in Colorado and gotten in line for the PAX keynote with Wil Wheaton. Good lord, there were a lot of people.

Serious luck was on my side, as I had Rob Wheeler along to act as my Virgil through the utterly overwhelming and confusing human ocean that was the PAX entrance. He’d attended the Seattle PAX the previous Fall, and had also scoped out the scene beforehand to pick up his Speaker badge. (More about that later.) He helped me navigate my way into a long entrance queue, along with Sarah Morayati, a very friendly (and talented, I later discovered) woman who came on the scene in the last few years.

Meeting Sarah was my first taste of a feeling that was to get very familiar over the next couple of days. I am, I discovered, Unfrozen Caveman IF Guy. It’s as if I’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years, and I thawed out at PAX, like Captain America looking up at the Avengers and thinking, “Who are you guys?” When Dante was born in 2005 (and really, a little before, as we were preparing for his arrival), I withdrew pretty thoroughly from the IF scene. I handed SPAG over to Jimmy Maher, I pretty much stopped writing reviews, I stopped reading the newsgroups, and I stopped visiting ifMUD. There have been exceptions here and there — my review of 1893, for instance, or my work with Textfyre — but for the most part, I have been absent. It turns out that a lot can happen in five years! I’m excited but a bit overwhelmed at how much there is to catch up on.

Speaking of overwhelming, when the line finally moved into the convention proper, we quickly heard that we wouldn’t make it into the keynote. We connected up with Stephen, and headed into the expo hall. This is about the point when sensory overload started attacking my brain cells, making it impossible for me now to retrieve my memories of who was where when. I know there was a group of us, and we met up with another group, and Mark Musante was there, and Jacqueline Ashwell was there, and Iain Merrick was there, and Dan Shiovitz was there, other people I don’t know very well were there, and probably lots of others I do but everything is blurring together because have I mentioned that good god there were a lot of people?

In the expo hall, there was also a lot of noise and sound. Wait, make that A WHOLE GODDAMNED LOT OF NOISE AND SOUND!!! And people. Of course. We watched Rob play Dante’s Inferno, which apparently involves Dante kicking lots of ass and not, as someone pointed out, fainting a lot, the way he does in the book. We watched Stephen play some game that involves falling and is impossible to Google because its name is something like “AaaaaAAaaaAAAAaaAAAAAa!!!!” We saw lots of booths and bright colors and LOUD SOUNDS and so forth. You get the idea.

After some time, I went with a subgroup of people to attend a 4:00 panel called “Design an RPG in an Hour.” It was crowded! I ended up leaning against the back wall. The panel was more or less like improv comedy, except take out the comedy and put in its place boilerplate RPG elements. What will our setting be? What is the conflict? Who are the protagonists and antagonists? What are their special traits? (i.e. What will their stat categories be?) It was pretty well-done, albeit dominated by what Stephen accurately termed “goofy high-concept stuff” from the audience. For instance, the guy shouting out “talking dinosaurs!” got a round of applause. I was happy to be there in any case, because there was a 5:30 panel on IF that would be in the same room, so I figured we’d stake out the good seats.

Now, this is a very cool thing. Some IF community folks pitched the idea of a PAX panel called “Storytelling in the World of Interactive Fiction,” and to our general delight, the PAX organizers made it part of the official con schedule! Going to this panel was one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Boston. So when it became apparent that PAX enforcers would be doing a full room sweep to prevent the very camping behavior I was counting on, it was time to make a new plan — and apparently, there was quite a line forming. So we snuck out before the panel ended to get in line.

And my goodness, it’s a lucky thing we did. When I first saw the room, I couldn’t imagine how we’d fill it with people wanting to hear about IF. But after we took our seats (which were quite good), people started to flow in. And then more came. And then more. The chairs: filled. The walls: filled. The aisles: filled.


I get chills again as I write it. I mean, I’m very sorry for the people who got turned away. I met several of them over the course of the weekend, and they were quite disappointed. But holy shit, what hath PAX wrought when we can cram a huge room with people interested in our medium, with tons more hoping to get in? It was stunning, absolutely stunning.

The panel itself was great. It consisted of some of our best: Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, Robb Sherwin, Aaron A. Reed, and Rob Wheeler moderating. I won’t try and recap the panel, except to say that it was wonderful to hear sustained, intelligent, live discussion of IF. The charming Jenni Polodna, another arrival during my years on ice, wrote some very thorough notes about it, and Jason Scott filmed it, so you’ll probably be able to see it yourself sometime. Which, if you were one of those turned away, might help a bit.

All I know is that at the end, I felt like I had a whole lot of games I needed to play.

Top 10 IF games to play if you’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years

1. Blue Lacuna by Aaron A. Reed

2. Violet by Jeremy Freese

3. The games of the JayIsGames IF Comp

4. Lost Pig by Admiral Jota

5. Make It Good by Jon Ingold

6. De Baron by Victor Gijsbers

7. Alabaster by a Emily Short and also a whole boatload of people.

8. The Shadow In The Cathedral by Ian Finley and Jon Ingold. [Hey, one I’ve played! I was even a tester for it!]

9. Floatpoint by Emily Short

10. Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe

1893: A World’s Fair Mystery by Peter Nepstad [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2009.]

IFDB Page: 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery

World Class

Peter Nepstad has performed a minor miracle. He has made money, significant money, as an IF author. According to a recent SPAG interview, he’s sold about 3700 copies, at a retail price of $15-$20, mostly $20. The majority of these sales came from brick-and-mortar stores where his game is for sale. Let me say that again. Peter Nepstad wrote a game himself, made deals to get it sold in stores as well as online, and has sold several thousand copies, netting thousands of dollars.

And all he had to do was work ridiculously hard, over a period of many years. The subject of Nepstad’s game is the 1893 World’s Fair that was held in Chicago, Illinois. Nepstad researched the fair thoroughly, collecting hundreds of photographs (over 500 of which are scanned into the game), and recreating historical artifacts from the era. Once the game was completed, he arranged for publication on CDs and got his product onto the shelves at gift stores in various Windy City attractions, such as the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the Museum of Science and Industry, and of course the gift shop at the World’s Fair site. He sought out press attention, garnering favorable reviews from (among other places) the Associated Press, the Chicago Sun-Times, and Games magazine.

Then there’s the game itself. People, this game is enormous, and has to be the product of an absolutely Herculean effort. Every time I thought I had a handle on how big it is, I’d discover some new aspect and have to revise my estimate upward. Here’s an example: there are some places in the game in which it is necessary to bring a light source. Guess how many rooms I searched before finding a light source? 273. Two hundred and seventy-three rooms. These weren’t crummy carbon-copy rooms either, not randomly generated locations from some teeth-grinding maze, but full-fledged parts of the game’s faithful historical simulacrum. Why do I know the exact number? Because after my first several hours exploring the game, I had to start keeping a spreadsheet just to track which places I’d visited, which puzzles they contained, which exits I’d tried, and so forth. Not only that, but the 4th dimension is implemented and important — some areas are only open at certain times of day, certain events only happen on a particular day, and missing an appointment can mean losing the game.

The experience of exploring this game is satisfying in itself. Between the epic scope, the detailed room descriptions, and the well-chosen photographs, I often got a frisson of time-travel sensation, a level of immersion that made me feel transported back across the centuries. The theme of the fair was a celebration of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas (the 21st-century political thorniness of which the author addresses in an afterword), and exploration is the order of the day both in the fair and in the game. In fact, once we reach the climactic endgame, the PC is literally tied to a chair to have the plot shouted at him, and while this would drive me crazy in most games, I didn’t mind at all in 1893 — it was almost a relief from having to maintain a gargantuan mental map and keep track of a variety of temporally spaced events. Dealing with the game’s size (330 rooms!) actually constitutes one of the most challenging aspects of 1893. There is a definite sense of overwhelm that lasts for a long time, until you finally get the game’s geography straight in your head.

There’s a pleasant sense of artistic unity to the interface, which consists of a text window, a graphics window, and a compass rose, garnished with just a bit of fancy Victorian filigree. Occasionally, the pictures and compass disappear for effect, but for the most part, we can always see exits at a glance, beneath a visual representation of the location. These photographs are a great touch, and some of the images Nepstad has chosen are absolutely wonderful, compelling images that would be interesting in any context, but are all the more arresting for accompanying such a thorough simulation of their original setting. The combination can create a potent sense of place.

The game presents a serviceable plot to motivate exploration: you play a detective called to investigate the disappearance of eight large and precious diamonds from one of the fair’s exhibits. The thief has hidden the diamonds all around the fair, ensconced within various puzzly contraptions, and scattered clues to their locations a la The Riddler. It must be said that this plot does not make a great deal of sense, and contains some serious holes — at least one of the diamonds is hidden in a way that seems logically impossible to me. Still, it marries traditional text adventure concerns to this large simulation, transforming 1893 from a model into a game. The simulation is huge enough to entertain a history buff without ever having to get involved in the puzzles, while the game aspects are engaging enough to gratify text adventure enthusiasts.

Nepstad has a keen sense of spectacle, and effectively conveys how breathtaking some of the fair’s wonders must have been to its visitors. In addition, he throws some fun twists and turns into the plot, generating moments of real excitement to punctuate the player’s long journey through his game. He demonstrates a real flair for action sequences — there are a couple of terrific set-pieces worthy of any period thriller. The whole thing winds up in an ending that I found absolutely spectacular, an enthralling finale that provides a fitting close to the game’s very slowly rising action. I finished 1893 feeling, overall, happy and satisfied.

Given all that, it feels a bit churlish to complain about the game, but it must be said that there were some aspects of 1893 that I found disappointing. Foremost among these is, believe it or not, its widespread underimplementation. I know I’ve just extolled the game’s largesse and emphasized how much work it must have taken, but while its scope is immensely broad, its implementation is often frustratingly shallow. Often the wonders of the fair seemed more like a background painting, because so many of them lacked descriptions. Worse, some of the basic functionality around them was all too thinly provided. For instance, when the PC finds a full pack of Cairo cigarettes:

>look in pack
There's nothing in the pack of cigarettes.

>get all from pack
I don't see what you're referring to.

>get cigarette
You pull a cigarette out and close the pack.

>smoke it
You'll have to open the pack of cigarettes first.

>open pack

>smoke it
I don't know how to smoke the pack of cigarettes.

>smoke cigarette
I don't know how to smoke the cigarette.

>smoke cairo
You'll have to light it first.

This, this is the kind of thing that earns IF its reputation as perverse and obfuscatory. Who but the masochists among us (and I include myself) wouldn’t type QUIT after a sequence like this? It makes me wince to think about newcomers to IF (some of whom this game surely found) encountering such obtuse implementation. There were some serious parsing problems throughout the game — for instance, SEARCH means something different from LOOK IN, so you could search something and still not find a crucial item that “look in” would have found. Synonyms were lacking in numerous instances, and some very basic verbs were missing, such as WAVE, CUT, ARREST, and WASH. When I’d attempt one of these commands, the game would respond, “There’s no verb in that sentence!”, which is of course patently false. Poor parsing and thin implementation are a deadly combination, especially as the suspense ratchets up. As I said, Nepstad has a flair for action sequences, but the game’s failure to understand or meaningfully respond to reasonable commands could be a serious tension-deflater in crucial moments.

NPCs in 1893 suffered from the same sparseness, most lacking responses to all but a very few topics and actions. The details that are included with them are often well-chosen, so some (such as a small boy and a Japanese woman) manage to be evocative despite their flimsiness, but very rarely do any of them ever feel like real characters rather than code constructs. The biggest sin here is when characters fail to respond to actions that absolutely should compel them — for instance, as a suspect very very slowly escapes, the PC can go straight to the headquarters of the fair’s security staff, but inexplicably can’t get their attention: “They are all hustling about so quickly you find it impossible to interrupt any of them,” says the game. Really? I’d rather have seen the office empty than have the game so willfully deflect a logical action. It isn’t a virtue to turn underimplementation into a puzzle, and that’s what happens at several junctures in 1893. Sensible alternate solutions aren’t accounted for, and actions that deserve a response go begging.

In addition, there are some persistent problems with the game’s writing, led by my personal nemesis, the its/it’s error. I must have found at least 20 instances of this, a circumstance tailor-made to drive me crazy. In addition to mechanics, there are just some really weird, illogical pieces of description, such as the Mysterious Case Of The Androgynous Seamster(ess?):

A small loom of antique design, made entirely of wood, is being used by an old woman, moving the treadle by foot, and the shuttles by hand, while all around him, the new mechanical looms weave several pieces at once and in a fraction of the time.

>ask man about loom
I don't see any man here.

>ask woman about loom
The old woman doesn't seem to hear you.

>x antique
The loom looks almost as old as the man who is working at it.

(My emphasis.) Finally, there are a number of flat-out bugs in the game — freaky TADS errors, strange scoping problems, or moments when it simply does not respond at all to player input. And of course, there’s always the classic “Which buildings do you mean, the grand buildings, or the grand buildings?”

For the most part, this stuff boils down to “needs further testing,” but then again I can certainly see how there’s plenty of room for mistakes to remain in a game this huge. Moreover, I’m sympathetic to the fact that with all the nouns included in this game, the prospect of describing a significant number of them might feel too overwhelming to face. I’d posit that perhaps projects of this size, especially if they are intended to be commercial ventures, could use one more person “on staff.” That person could not only serve as first tester and copyeditor, but he or she could also perform the tedious but crucial duty of filling in descriptions for first-level nouns and coding for alternate solutions, providing richness that might be too much to ask of one implementor but which can make the difference between immersion and infuriation for the player.

I should mention that a number of details are well-attended — for instance, the “can’t go” messages in each room usually help the player out by naming the exits. The puzzles, for the most part, are also logical and well-cued. A few times, I found myself wishing that the game had given me a clearer indication towards some important aspect necessary for solving a puzzle — in particular, there’s a crucial demonstration that only happens once a day but is not announced anywhere I could find. Still, this was the exception. Most of the game’s puzzles (and there are many) are solvable and fun, and while there were a few instances where I turned to the hints, they turned out to be mostly due to my own boneheadedness. There were a few times when a puzzle stretched plausibility, such as the time I was handed a baby and treated it as just another inventory item.

Then again, I’m willing to believe that the business with the baby could have been a subtle joke on the game’s part. One of the more enjoyable aspects of 1893 is its light tone and affable wit. A few parts of the game are outright comedy, and hilarious comedy at that. An outstandingly pompous tour guide can lead you through the fair, speaking in the prose of the most overwrought Victorian novel, to humorous effect. There’s a wonderfully funny scene with a mouse, and some excellent parser responses, including one I can’t help quoting, from a room with a huge pillar of anthracite coal:

>kiss pillar
Too bad you missed Dr. Freud's visit to the fair, he would have loved to meet you.

Okay, it’s a comma splice, but still damn funny. Other nice touches include the occasional cameo by historical figures, such as when you spy Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan discussing the design of the Japanese temple.

Alongside this clearly intentional comedy were some instances of a murkier sort. Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether the game intended a wink to accompany its message, such as this statement from the tour guide: “The French have often been called the most polite nation in the world, but France must surrender the palm to America.” I dunno, maybe cultural perceptions have shifted radically, but from my 2008 perspective, I thought, “Oh yeah, America is the capital of politeness. Trailed only by France.” Or take another instance, a pomological exhibit featuring a Liberty Bell replica made of oranges:

>x liberty
You pause for a moment, wondering what kind of person would spend his time making a replica of the Liberty Bell made entirely out of oranges.

Or, for that matter, what kind of person would spend his time making a replica of the 1893 World’s Fair made entirely out of TADS code? Is it dry self-deprecation or straight-ahead ingenuousness? Oh, and then there’s the mysterious matter of the “homacoustic commutator”, an object defined (as far as I’m concerned) with two nonsense words, and described thus: “The homacoustic commutator is equipped with an electric signalling device.” Say what? I had to conclude that the game was joking with me here. Either that or it decided to edge for a moment into a steampunk version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Actually, that’s not as outlandish a prospect as it might sound. There were a couple of cases where the game suddenly, jarringly threw in a dose of science fiction or magic, for no easily discernible reason. These moments are certainly exciting (and shocking) when they happen, but I think they weaken the game overall. In such a realistic simulation, these easter eggs deal a killing blow to mimesis, throwing me right out of any period immersion I might be feeling.

Speaking of easter eggs, I am ready to declare that 1893 has, hands down, the best easter egg I have ever found in any IF game. I don’t want to spoil it here, except to recommend that those who finish the game definitely try all the amusing actions laid out in the game’s afterword. There’s an easter egg tucked into this game that could practically serve as an entire comp game all by itself. That mini-game is plagued by much of the same underimplementation that appears throughout the rest of the game, but it also has the same great witty responses, the same sense of excitement, and the same clever puzzles as the rest of the game too. There are even easter eggs within the easter egg, if you can believe that. It’s terrifically impressive, in an “even his muscles have muscles” kind of way.

Other hidden actions might award the player a “bonus point”, and it’s a great feeling to get one of these, because it’s usually for some very satisfying action. 1893 isn’t shy about using the scoring system, and I think it exploits the system quite effectively, with the main score serving as a progress indicator and the bonus points as pure lagniappe. Speaking of bonuses, there are various fascinating historical texts embedded in this game, such as Lincoln’s first inaugural address, as well as some texts by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells making the case for African-American representation at the Fair (though of course they don’t use that term.) I quite liked the way Nepstad handles race in 1893, presenting the accurate historical simulation but making sure to include the voices that at that time were protesting the exclusion of African-American culture.

There were a few parts where that accurate simulation broke down, anachronistic references to jacuzzis and homeless people, as well as this:

>buy banana
Any more bananas and you'd start to feel like Carmen Miranda.

Not exactly the thought an 1893 detective would be having, given the fact that Miranda was born in 1909. Still, these slip-ups were minor and rare against the huge tide of very well-researched content with which 1893 is overflowing. It’s a game that richly rewards exploration, that provides hours and hours of engrossing entertainment, that charms with its cleverness and awes with its magnitude. It has its flaws, but it’s well worth your twenty dollars.

Risorgimento Represso by Michael Coyne [Comp03]

IFDB page: Risorgimento Represso
Final placement: 2nd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first things first. It’s time to welcome a talented new author. Michael Coyne has made a great game, so well-written and well-implemented that it’s almost always a joy to play. It’s on a par with most Infocom games, and exceeds them at many points. There’s cleverness and panache to spare, and the puzzles are mostly interesting and fun. It’s not perfect, of course. There are a couple of under-implemented commands (like LOOK BEHIND), a hackneyed puzzle or two, and some jokes (like the cheese one) are pressed rather too hard. It also could use a more compelling title.

Still, on the whole, this is a satisfying and enormously fun game. Well, what I saw of it, anyway. And therein lies the problem. I spent the last review (of Domicile) bemoaning games that are entered in the competition when they’re unfinished, undertested, and unproofread. Now, of course, I’m immediately hit with the opposite problem: a game that is exquisitely finished, betatested, and error-checked, but is still inappropriate for the competition, because it does not even come close to fitting within a two hour play session. When my two hours with RR ran out, I think I was maybe a third of the way through, and that was with a lot of leaning on the hints towards the end. Sure, it was fun while I played it, but I knew almost from the beginning that there was no way I would solve it in the allotted time, and I felt annoyed and disappointed by that. In my opinion, this game is no more appropriate for the competition than was the unfinished Atomic Heart, or the excruciatingly poor Amnesia. It’s too big. It is just too big.

I’ve written out and rehearsed my objections to overlarge comp games so many times that they almost feel self-evident to me now. But I realize that my experience doesn’t match with most people’s, so for those just tuning in, here are a few of my problems with giant comp games. First of all, the comp is a high-pressure playing time. I really try to finish all the games in the judging period, and to write a substantial review after each game. Plus, I have a life, so that means that my IFComp time is squeezed in at the edges of my life — lunch hours, laptop time on the bus to and from work, or late nights after my wife has gone to bed. It’s frustrating to carve out this time and then realize that it’s still not even close to sufficient for the game I’m playing.

Secondly, there’s a more insidious problem with trying to squeeze a big game into two hours. When I had only a half-hour left and huge swaths of the game left undiscovered, I turned to the hints. I did this not because I couldn’t have solved the puzzles on my own. Maybe I could have. But not in half an hour, and I wanted to see more of the game. Turning to the hints, though, does a disservice to a game like this. Well-constructed puzzles ought to be experienced fully, relished, and a well-written world should be enjoyed at leisure rather than rushed through. Trying to play this game in two hours will ruin it for many players, players who could have enjoyed it to its fullest potential were it released outside the comp.

Moreover, how many people are likely to come back and finish the game after the comp period is over? For all the comp games I’ve meant to do that with, I’ve almost never followed through, because after the comp is a frenzy of reviewing excitement, and then come the holidays, and busy times at work, and… whoosh. The game is well off my radar by the time I actually have time to play it. Then there’s the fact that I find it difficult to give a reasonable evaluation to a game that remains mostly unseen by me — it’s like trying to review a movie after watching the trailer and the first 20 minutes. These aren’t the only reasons I don’t like huge comp games, but that’s enough for now.

Still, with all that said, can I understand why somebody, especially a first-time author, would enter their huge game in the comp, even knowing all of the attendant problems? Of course I can. The fact that RR is a comp entry perfectly illustrates the problem with the current IF scene. The annual IF Competition is simply too important, too powerful. It’s become a cynosure whose glare eclipses everything else in the IF world. I love the competition — I think that much is clear from my ongoing participation in it — but I have come to really hate the way it’s turned into a gravity well for games. If you enter your game in the competition, it’s bound to get at least a dozen reviews, be played by the majority of the community, and maybe even become a talking point in IF discussions for years to come. Widespread familiarity in the community also may give it an edge in the XYZZY voting.

If you release your game outside the comp, what happens? Usually, almost nothing. Some games get released to not even a single, solitary post in the newsgroups, let alone reviews or discussion. Even humongous, excellent games like 1893, the products of hundreds of hours of work, sometimes cause hardly a ripple. So of course tons of games get into the competition that aren’t finished, or are way too big. How else to reap in attention what you’ve sown in work? I try to remedy the situation somewhat by continuing to release SPAG and hassling people to write reviews for it, but games routinely go a year or more without a SPAG review, and some games (Bad Machine comes to mind) seem never to get reviewed at all. It’s maddening to me, and I don’t know what to do about it, but I have to say I’m at the point where I’m seriously considering no longer writing comp game reviews, turning my review energies instead to non-comp games so that they’ll at least get attention and evaluation from somebody.

For this year, though, I’m committed, which brings me to the problem of score. From what I saw of this game, I thought it was outstanding, worthy of a 9.5 or above. But I just cannot bring myself to give it that score, if for no other reason than because I don’t want games that shouldn’t be in the comp to do well, since all that will do is encourage more of them. On the other hand, can I really justify giving a low score to such an obviously high-quality product, especially when I’ve already given Scavenger, another too-big game, a high score? Well, the difference between this and Scavenger is that with Scavenger, I felt like I’d seen the majority of the game, that the major puzzles were solved or almost-solved, and that most of what remained was denouement. With RR, though, I felt like I’d eaten the appetizer but had to leave before the entree.

My compromise is this. I’ll make it clear in my review that this is a great game, worthy of any IF devotee’s attention. Play it sometime when you can really enjoy it, linger over its many pleasures, and let the puzzles percolate in your head. Play it without a time limit. Savor it like I couldn’t today. Don’t let my low score fool you — it’s eminently worth playing, but I saw a third of it, and so I’m giving it a third of the score it probably would have gotten from me had it been the right size for the comp.

Rating: 3.2